The group Business Leaders for Michigan put out a report recently detailing their recommendations on dramatically improving the state’s K-12 education system.
The document quickly came under fire from two prominent education experts in the state who questioned whether BLM – a top-shelf group of Michigan CEOs and corporate executives – had cast aside research and data in favor of conservative ideological beliefs.
One of BLM’s primary goals is to make Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development over the next 10 years. That goal is as laudable as it is unrealistic, given Michigan’s downward trajectory in K-12 education for more than a dozen years.
Former state schools superintendent Tom Watkins sarcastically welcomed BLM to the education debate after the business community had backed tax and spending policies for years that coincided with the decline that has made Michigan’s education system one of the worst in the nation.
For more than a dozen years, Watkins has been far ahead of the curve on sounding the alarm about the Michigan education curriculum’s declining relevance to a quickly changing business world. In a guest column written for the Detroit Free Press, Watkins blasted BLM and business interests overall for their support of diverting tax dollars to charter schools while supporting tax cuts that dissipated funding for struggling K-12 school districts. Cuts in funding for the state’s public universities have been especially steep.
“With technology, artificial intelligence, automation and globalization coming at warp speed, jobs can and are moving effortlessly across the globe,” Watkins wrote. “… Key educators, teachers, principals, and superintendents must be invited to the (education reform) table. Smart business leaders don’t lay out a change strategy without engaging frontline workers and we won’t get buy-in from educators if a plan is developed without their input.”
Meanwhile, Lou Glazer, director of the research group known as Michigan Future Inc., chastised BLM for failing to acknowledge growing corporate support for a wholly different approach toward higher education at colleges and universities. While BLM’s focus is almost entirely on raising standardized K-12 test scores, growing evidence indicates that the skills students need to succeed are not those measured on typical multiple-choice tests.
The latest advice for parents and students is not to have their kid get a 4-year degree in science or math, or to enroll in a skilled-trades program at a vocational school. A well-rounded liberal arts education may be the most value of all.
Glazer wrote recently that top executives at tech giant Google have found, much to their chagrin, that their most successful employees excel in “soft skills” rather than in occupation-specific areas of study such as computer science or engineering. The gold stars go to those workers with broad skills related to creative thinking, the ability to work with others, and the willingness to be a lifelong learner.
Google determined, Glazer explains, that “the seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”
In fact, the Google gurus concluded that the newfound emphasis in high school and college on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) may be misguided. This matches the findings of the employer-led Partnership for 21st Century Learning which describes the successful path from school to work as the 4Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.
Major media publications such as Forbes and The Washington Post have reported on the changes afoot as the corporate world tries to dramatically bend the curve followed by educators. The story of what happened at Google, as described by the Post, is quite enlightening:
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills.
… Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.
Clearly, this view will scramble more than a few brains among parents pushing their kids to pursue a certain futuristic career path. A Forbes article about the newest hiring trends in Silicon Value is sure to create the most headaches. The headline reads: “That Useless Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.”